Symposium on the Challenges of Severe Convective Storms


Historical overview of severe convective storms forecasting

Steven J. Weiss, Storm Prediction Center, Norman, OK

A summary of tornado and severe local storm prediction is presented, emphasizing the combination of political and scientific influences on the issuance of severe storm forecasts to the public. The roots of severe convective storms forecasting in the United States started in the 1870s when the U. S. Army Signal Corps was given responsibility for the initial weather forecasting efforts in this country. Under the leadership of J. P. Finley, early development of tornado reporter networks, tornado climatologies, identification of surface synoptic patterns favorable for tornado development, and issuance of experimental tornado forecasts showed great promise by the mid 1880s. However, considerable debate about the societal impact of tornado forecasts and political scandal within the Signal Corps resulted in termination of the tornado research and forecasting program, and in 1891 weather forecasting was transferred to the new civilian Weather Bureau. For the next half century, a policy prohibiting the issuance of tornado forecasts was implemented, and little if any efforts were made to resurrect a tornado research and forecasting program within the Weather Bureau.

An increase in severe weather awareness began during World War II across the central and eastern parts of the U. S. owing to the impact of thunderstorms on military installations. However, it was not until 1948 that the U. S. Air Force began an organized program to issue tornado forecasts for military bases, jump-started by the destructive tornadoes that struck Tinker AFB, OK on 20 March and 25 March 1948. By 1952, pressure from the public, media, and Congress forced the Weather Bureau to establish its own specialized public severe weather forecasting unit, which was named the Severe Local Storms (SELS) Center. The Center moved from Washington, DC to Kansas City, MO in 1954 to be located in “tornado alley” and to take advantage of enhanced communication facilities. Interestingly, a SELS research unit was quickly established, but this unit gradually moved to Norman, OK in the late 1950s-early 1960s period, becoming the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in 1964. It would take more than 30 years before the forecasting component, renamed the Storm Prediction Center in 1995, reestablished links with the severe storm research community when it moved to Norman, OK in 1997 and became collocated with NSSL.

The presentation will chronicle the challenges of predicting small-scale, rare hazardous weather events through the years, the process of science and technology transfer to the operational community, and current key issues that must be addressed in order for future improvements in severe storm forecasting to occur.


Session 1, Historical Perspectives on Understanding and Forecasting Severe Convective Storms
Tuesday, 31 January 2006, 1:45 PM-3:00 PM, A410

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